Lower Cost Eating

Resources for Lower Cost Food Options

Keeping within a tight food budget is often presented as involving both a higher intake of starchy foods and greater use of low quality foods. Does it need to be like that?

The value we derive from food can be thought of as loosely falling into three major aspects:

  1. specific molecules, such as the essential vitamins, the essential nutrients, the “phytochemicals” such as flavonoids, lutein, lycopene, etc
  2. how the components of food and the structure of food affects digestion, gut function and the gut microbiome – such as resistant starch, types of fibre, “pre-biotics” and “pro-biotics”, aspects of the structure of foods and how they are affected by processing (such as starch granule size, structure and whether the granules are intact).
  3. The fuel supplied by food, the pattern of inflow of fuel into the body, how it affects metabolism, the storage vs burning of fuel and so on. Although an imperfect tool, the term we use to describe the energy in the types of food molecules that we have the metabolic equipment to burn is “calories”. We all need to burn energy each day to maintain our bodies, think and move.

(This is just a useful framework for discussion. In reality, all aspects of food and nutrition over-lap and have layers of complexity.)

So, whatever our over-all pattern of eating is, and which specific foods we eat and when, the net effect of our foods eaten needs to adequately support our well-being in each of these three areas.

On the topic of starchy foods, they contribute in each of these 3 categories – nutrients, fibre, calories, and so on. The fibre and the nutrients can be gotten this way or in other foods. Starchy foods are just one way of doing this. Calories can be gotten in other ways, too, but people often see starchy foods as the least costly way of getting a major portion of the day’s needed calories. Starch molecules are long chains of glucose, which are broken down. We have the cellular equipment to “burn” glucose and produce useable packets of energy – ATP.

Another source of cheap calories is “foods” (so to speak) that are high in sugars – which are most commonly sucrose or high-fructose-corn-syrup (HFCS). HFCS is much cheaper than sucrose (called “table sugar”).

The collective term for starches and sugars is “carbohydrates”. Fibre is also a carbohydrate, as it’s structure is that of a carbohydrate, but the molecules are put together in certain ways that we don’t have the right digestive enzymes to break apart – and so are not able to absorb into the body from the digestive tract.

There is a problem, though. A growing portion of the population has trouble handling carbohydrates. Insulin resistance is far more common than it was even a few decades ago. On top of that, it used to occur mostly in later middle age and in more elderly people. In the past decades, insulin resistance has shown up in younger and younger people and is no longer are even in children. Insulin resistance means that the body has trouble handling carbohydrates. It is the main feature of the “Metabolic Syndrome” and is the problem that causes pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes. (See other pages on this blog.)

Also, there is a growing recognition of the harms of a high intake of sugars. Many organizations have issues guidelines strongly recommending a limited intake of sugars for all people of all ages, not just those with known diabetes, pre-diabetes or insulin resistance.

So, we have a situation now which is much different from how nutrition and “diets” were discussed ever before. It used to be possible to assume that a majority of the population were “normal” in their metabolism and nutritional needs. For now, and for the coming years, those days are out the window. Gone. There is no longer a place for “general recommendations” or talk of “best diets”.

Whether discussing low calorie eating, or low cost eating, or vegan eating, or vegetarian eating, or Paleo eating, or ecologically-friendly eating, or any other pattern of eating, a bottom-line issue is – how to acknowledge and meet the needs of the high proportion of the population with the “special dietary need” of coping with insulin resistance.

Where to get the calories, then, without flooding the body with sugars or with too much digested and absorbed glucose for the body to handle?

Fat has been targeted for decades as something we should all strive to eat little of. It turns out that those recommendations were not based on good research studies. This is a very hot topic in nutrition and public health discussions these days, so you have likely seen or heard in the media about changing views on fat. Although it is important to keep in mind that individual needs and circumstances will vary, a majority of people can do well with a higher intake of fat – although I would caution that I would not like to see a high intake of fat along with a high intake of sugars or high blood levels of insulin or glucose. (However, the problem there is the high sugar/insulin/glucose, which will likely bring grief.) Types of fats are also a topic.

Moving away from fat-food-avoidance can really improve the healthfulness and enjoyment of eating on a tight budget. Well, moving away from fat-food-avoidance can really improve the healthfulness and enjoyment of just about any person’s food plan!

Keeping in mind the imperative of avoiding triggering high blood levels of insulin and/or glucose:

  • bringing the fat intake of the diet up means that calorie needs can be met with less reliance on starch (remembering that agencies now recommend caps on sugar intake that mean that not much calories should come from sugars).
  • when more fat is included in meals, the fat slows the movement of food from the stomach, slowing the digestion and absorption of the glucose in starch, so there is less peak insulin demand and a reduced peak flow of glucose from the gut into the body. Adding fat to a meal is a very effective way to, in effect, lower the net glycemic index of the meal.
  • many people find that fat improves the flavour and enjoyment of foods, which may make a big difference to people’s food choices when they are thinking of using low cost foods, such as beans and lentils (beans and lentils also being much lower glycemic index than many other starchy options and provide protein and fibre). (Glycemic index is a very problematic tool which is often mis-used. However, noting the slower digestion of beans is actually of practical use.)

Some people have no trouble at all with insulin resistance or someone else can be anywhere on a scale from very mild insulin resistance to very severe. People with a higher degree of insulin resistance will often need to keep the intake of carbohydrates low, no matter whether they are “low glycemic, slow-digested” or not. Each person’s needs, and their changing needs over time, need to be considered.

Something to be cautious about is a high intake of polyunsaturated fats. In the past decades, there has been a focus on making sure people had polyunsaturated fats – for two good reasons and one bad one.

  • There is a certain need for a small amount of polyunsaturated fats as essential nutrients. “Essential nutrients” we absolutely need them for our bodies and can’t make them. When someone has a low fat diet, it takes some attention to be sure that part of the low fat intake is enough of the essential fats. On a higher fat diet, the amount of essential fas needed is the same, but now would be a much smaller portion of the larger total fat intake. Polyunsaturated fats are easily harmed by oxygen and so the body has to defend them and they easily become oxidized (harmful) in the body. An unnecessarily high “burden” of polyunsaturates is not good.
  • The essential fats (actually, the term “fatty acids applies here) fall into two families – the omega-3 fatty acids and the omega-6 fatty acids. When eating the usual mix of food that is typical for most people in North America – the intake of omega-6 fatty acids tend, for most people, to be enough to meet their basic needs plus a lot more than that. On the other hand, with this same “usual” or “common” food intake pattern the intake of omega-3 fatty acids is often below the desirable level. The omega-6 fatty acids are present in many foods, for example most nuts are a good source. A problem – oils containing high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids are among those that are very widely grown and cheap for both individual’s to buy for their kitchens and for industry to buy for making processed foods. Examples are corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil and soybean oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are not in high supply in the diet, and there are only a few foods that are particularly good sources of them – for example fish, seafood, flax and walnuts. It is worth your time to look further into these topics, as it is too much to cover here.
  • for some time, there was a hypothesis that reducing saturated fats in the diet and replacing much of those with polyunsaturated fats would be good for the health. Oops – now it looks pretty clear that this was a terrible idea.

So, it is probably wise to keep your intake of the omega-6 containing oils to a minor portion of your total fat intake. Corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and “vegetable oil” (mislabeled because if you check the label it will list a mixture of corn, safflower, sunflower, canola and soybean oils) provide a high content of omega-6 fatty acids. They are tempting because they are cheap, but consider limiting your use of them. Remember that many commercial foods (for example salad dressings) and processed foods contain these same cheap oils. Also, if you are in the process of loosing weight, then the flow of fatty acids out of your fat cells will contain some omega-6 fatty acids – the proportion influenced by how high your intake of omega-6 fatty acids has been over the past few years or so.

Don’t forget to pay attention to your need for omega-3 fatty acids. Many people take these in capsules or bottles of fish oil. However, studies on the use of omega-3 supplements for general health purposes or prevention have been disappointing. It is likely important to get your basic needed amount of these fatty acids in the form of real food (surprise!). This does not rule out the possibility that adding extra omega-3 fatty acids by using supplements may be of use as medical therapy for certain medical conditions. For example, it is an active area of medical research to study the potential use of omega-3 fatty acids in depression and bipolar disorder.

Finally, run from trans fatty acids like the plague they have been. An exception is the trans fatty acids that are naturally present in animal fats in various amounts. These naturally-occurring fatty acids are particularly present in dairy fats. At this point, there have been research studies that suggest that there may be benefits to health from the intake of dairy fats. (This area of nutrition awaits for further study.)

In sum, advice for keeping food costs low often suggest the intake of a lot of starchy foods. Remember that you might do well (individual circumstances must always be considered) by shifting some of that starch intake for a higher intake of fats – while still keeping food costs relatively low.


Book : Good and Cheap  by Leanne Brown

I learned of this very popular book in a CBC Radio interview. The book started as a free pdf available on the author’s blog. After surge on popularity on interest, she has made a second edition, available in stores. She has kept the original free edition available to all on her web site. It has been downloaded more than 800,00 times.


Interview on CBC Radio: (23 minutes)  LINK

Unfortunately, the interview was framed as a discussion about non-poor people “appropriating” a “welfare diet”, which is really beside the point. Setting aside that, the rest of the interview, and the accompanying interview commenting on the usefulness of the book “on the ground”, is worthwhile.


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